Got Icebreakers? Show Me the Money!

Apparently there has been some discussion of icebreakers in Congress. The arguments seem to be over the best way to help out, but don’t seem to be doing anything useful. Perhaps the best summary is here. There have been several reports, so to provide a bit more detail.

CNN reports,

“House Republicans, who say they want to force the administration’s hand, are pushing a Coast Guard authorization bill that would decommission the icebreaker Polar Star, which is now being repaired, in just three years, saying that keeping the 35-year-old ship afloat is ‘throwing good money after bad.’

“The Congressional Research Service said one potential concern for Congress is the absence of a plan for replacing the Polar Star upon completion of its seven- to 10-year life after it returns to service in late 2012.

“That is why Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-New Jersey, included the provision to decommission the Polar Star, said spokesman Jason Galanes. “We absolutely support the Arctic icebreaker mission,” Galanes said. “We’re forcing this decision rather then allowing the administration to kick the can down the road.”

“Regardless of the outcome of the dispute, a gap in icebreaking capabilities is almost certain, according to the CRS report. Following any decision to design and build new icebreakers, the first replacement polar icebreaker might enter service in eight to 10 years, the report says.”

 If Rep. LoBiondo knows that it will take seven to ten years to complete a new Icebreaker, why does he want to decommission Polar Star after only three years?
In the Senate, Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, is attempting to prevent the planned decommissioning of the Polar Sea (WAGB-11) which the Coast Guard had planned to raid for spares to keep her sister ship, Polar Star (WAGB-10), in commission. She also notes that to meet Coast Guard and Navy mission requirements, the Coast Guard needs a minimum of six heavy-duty icebreakers and four medium-duty icebreakers (first time I’ve seen this stated).

DODbuz lays out the administration’s position, but finds the whole discussion disconnected from reality,

“The Administration strongly opposes House passage of H.R. 2838 because it includes a provision that would require the Coast Guard to decommission the icebreaker USCGC POLAR STAR.  The Administration has requested, and Congress has appropriated, funds to reactivate the USCGC POLAR STAR by December 2012 and extend that vessel’s service life for seven to 10 years.  This effort will stabilize the United States’ existing polar fleet until long-term icebreaking capability requirements are finalized.  By directing the Commandant to decommission the USCGC POLAR STAR within three years, the bill would effectively reduce the vessel’s service life to two years and create a significant gap in the Nation’s icebreaking capacity.”

By way of comparison, we have already done a lot of planning for the Offshore Patrol Cutter including getting industry comment on the draft specifications. Money for the design is in the FY2012 budget, but we are still not expecting to see the first one until at least 2019, and I suspect it will be later than that. So designing, contracting for, and building an new design icebreaker for the Coast Guard in less than eight years is probably impossible assuming normal procedures.

Even if we started the procurement process for WAGB-21 in FY2013, the refurbished Polar Star will probably need to last a full ten years before it can be replaced by a second new construction icebreaker (WAGB-22) that would finally give the Coast Guard the three large icebreakers they say we need, and that includes the less capable Healy (WAGB-20). (Incidentally, where are WAGB-12 through 19?)
There are other ways we might get a capability quicker if the Coast Guard and Congress are really interested. When the National Science Foundation needed an icebreaker they chartered one. Presumably the Coast Guard could do the same.  It provides the capability without the big up front cost and 30+ year commitment to a particular design. Actually there has been some support for this,

“The lone Alaska congressmen, Republican Don Young, opposes decommissioning icebreakers and wants to increase the number of vessels in any way possible, spokesman Luke Miller said. Young has introduced a bill that would authorize the Coast Guard to enter into long-term lease agreements for two new icebreakers.”

The Brits, in need of quick fix when their Arctic patrol ship was damaged by fire, did something even more radical, they took a three year lease on an existing Norwegian vessel that has been used to support the oil industry and added boats and weapons.

Thinking in more conventional terms, there are plenty of existing designs that can be modified and relatively quickly converted to provide icebreaking or ice-strengthened patrol vessels that could be built in the US. We have talked about Arctic Patrol Cutters before, but here is another ship only a little smaller than Glacier (WAGB-4), being built by Finland and Russia that looks adaptable.


Reportedly they are 99.2 m (325′) in length and 21.7 m (71′) in breadth. Their four engines have the total power of 18,000 kW and the propulsion power of 13,000 kW (17,426 HP). They reportedly are designed to operate independently in ice 1.7 m (5.6′) thick. With parts built in both Finland and Russia the price is about $100M each.

“As multipurpose vessels, these vessels are capable of carrying various type of cargo and they are equipped for oil spill response, fire fighting, and rescue operations. The rescue capacity is for 195 persons.”

Looks like it would not be too hard to add a hanger and flight deck.

1 thought on “Got Icebreakers? Show Me the Money!

  1. Pingback: More surprises in the House CG Reauthorization Bill -

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